In Time of War: Understanding American Public Opinion from World War II to Iraq

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From World War II to the war in Iraq, periods of international conflict seem like unique moments in U.S. political history—but when it comes to public opinion, they are not. To make this groundbreaking revelation, In Time of War explodes conventional wisdom about American reactions to World War II, as well as the more recent conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Adam Berinsky argues that public response to these crises has been shaped less by their defining characteristics—such as what they cost in lives and resources—than by the same political interests and group affiliations that influence our ideas about domestic issues.

With the help of World War II–era survey data that had gone virtually untouched for the past sixty years, Berinsky begins by disproving the myth of “the good war” that Americans all fell in line to support after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The attack, he reveals, did not significantly alter public opinion but merely punctuated interventionist sentiment that had already risen in response to the ways that political leaders at home had framed the fighting abroad. Weaving his findings into the first general theory of the factors that shape American wartime opinion, Berinsky also sheds new light on our reactions to other crises. He shows, for example, that our attitudes toward restricted civil liberties during Vietnam and after 9/11 stemmed from the same kinds of judgments we make during times of peace.

With Iraq and Afghanistan now competing for attention with urgent issues within the United States, In Time of War offers a timely reminder of the full extent to which foreign and domestic politics profoundly influence—and ultimately illuminate—each other.

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Editorial Reviews

Public Opinion Quarterly
A major advancement in scholarship on a topic that is both timely . . . and of enduring importance. In addition to being a persuasive piece of research, it is a highly readable book that would make an ideal text for graduate and advanced undergraduate courses. Indeed, the core of the book . . . should be required reading for any course on public opinion about foreign policy.

— Paul R. Brewer

Times Higher Education Supplement

"[Berinsky] assembles some impressive and disturbing statistics that will confirm some readers' worst doubts about how little reasoning goes into American popular feeling about their country's wars."
Robert Y. Shapiro

In Time of War is a must read for students of public opinion and American political history and foreign policy. Berinsky’s careful research shows decisively the value of public opinion data—both new and old—and how such data can correct misperceptions about recent history as well as challenge misperceptions, if not myths, about the past and its often idealized politics.”
Matthew Baum

“Adam Berinsky’s core insight, that citizens respond far more to elite discourse about events than to the events themselves, persuasively refutes the dominant perspective in the literature on public opinion and American foreign policy. Rather than relying solely on a reanalysis of data from recent conflicts, Berinsky also undertakes a unique historical expedition into public opinion during World War II. This allows him to present a comprehensive picture across seven decades, resulting in a tour de force of methodologically rigorous and theoretically rich public opinion research.”
Gary Jacobson

“Adam Berninsky’s In Time of War represents a major step forward in our understanding of American public opinion and foreign policy. His penetrating analysis of survey data on public reactions to wars ranging from World War II through Afghanistan and Iraq casts new and provocative light on a variety of controversies in the literature. It is essential reading for anyone with an interest, scholarly or otherwise, in the subject.”

Public Opinion Quarterly - Paul R. Brewer

"A major advancement in scholarship on a topic that is both timely . . . and of enduring importance. In addition to being a persuasive piece of research, it is a highly readable book that would make an ideal text for graduate and advanced undergraduate courses. Indeed, the core of the book . . . should be required reading for any course on public opinion about foreign policy."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226043593
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2009
  • Series: Chicago Studies in American Politics Series
  • Pages: 356
  • Sales rank: 931,501
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Adam J. Berinsky is associate professor of political science at MIT.

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Read an Excerpt


Understanding American Public Opinion from World War II to Iraq

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2009 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-04359-3

Chapter One


In early 2006, with the initial successes in Iraq a distant memory, public opinion seemed to have turned against the war. Republicans continued to support President Bush's foreign policies, but the nation as a whole did not. Although support for the war had remained fairly stable since the beginning of 2004 (Jacobson 2008), not since March 2004 had a majority of Americans agreed that the United States "did the right thing in taking military action against Iraq." Bush's public reaction to this grim news was to belittle the polls. At an appearance at Freedom House in March 2006, he exclaimed, "You don't need a president chasing polls and focus groups in order to make tough decisions. You need presidents who make decisions based on sound principles."

Bush's public face, however, hid a more complicated political reality. From the beginning of the war, the Bush administration planned and executed military strategy with the public firmly in mind. There is, in fact, clear evidence that the administration was paying close attention to the polls. On November 30, 2005, Bush outlined his future strategy for Iraq in a speech at the U.S. Naval Academy. As the New York Times subsequently reported, Bush heavily emphasized the concept of "victory," using the word fi ft een times in his speech, posting "Plan for Victory" signs on the podium, and titling an accompanying National Security Council report "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq." The origins of this "victory" theme can be found in the public opinion research of National Security Council (NSC) advisor Peter Feaver, a political scientist at Duke University who has argued that support for war depends on citizens' beliefs about the correctness of war and its likelihood of success. Bush's strategy was therefore not only a response to opinion polls; it was an attempt to influence those polls by emphasizing the prospect of eventual success in Iraq.

Bush's attention to public opinion polls in the realm of foreign policy puts him in good company among modern presidents. Lyndon Johnson tracked public opinion on Vietnam beginning in 1965, employing specialists to analyze both media and private opinion surveys and to draw conclusions about the direction of the public mood. The scope of this data collection and analysis effort was immense; under Johnson, according to Jacobs and Shapiro, the White House became "a veritable warehouse of opinion surveys" (1999, 595). The introduction of opinion polls into the war-making decision process in fact dates back to the 1930s. As long as there have been surveys, polls have played a central role in the formation of policy concerning matters of war and peace. Franklin D. Roosevelt's interest in public opinion is well known. Throughout his presidency, Roosevelt carefully cultivated various "channels to the public mind" (Steele 1974). Many of these techniques were methods well tested by politicians. But unlike his predecessors, Roosevelt had considerable access to scientific opinion surveys. The early years of FDR's presidency, after all, coincided with the rise of opinion polling in America. Given that the public's voice has long held great consequence for politicians, how are we to understand the meaning of that voice and its place in the political process?

In this book, I argue that the lessons learned from studies of public opinion on domestic issues ought to inform our knowledge of public opinion in the foreign realm. Much of our understanding of opinion during wartime has proceeded from the notion that times of war are unique moments in political history. I argue that such thinking is incorrect. Instead, public opinion about war is shaped by the same attitudes and orientations that shape domestic politics. Public opinion during times of war is properly viewed as a continuation of the same processes that shape public opinion during times of peace.


Considering the importance of the relationship between public opinion and foreign policy, it is not surprising that the study of war and public opinion is a flourishing industry within political science. Some scholars of international relations have studied "audience costs"—the public's potential to punish politicians who do not follow through on military threats—by exploring the way these costs enable leaders to signal their resolve in international crises (Fearon 1994; Baum 2004; Schultz 1998). Others have investigated the way in which an organized political opposition affects the process of crisis bargaining (Schultz 1998). In addition, a large literature has grown up around "the democratic peace"—the question of whether democratic governments are less prone to international conflict than states with other forms of government (Doyle 1983, 1986; Gowa 1999; Huth and Allee 2003; Maoz 1998; Morrow 2002; Russett 1993; Small and Singer 1982). These scholars oft en look to the mass public as the primary cause of military action or inaction. As Reiter and Stam (2002) argue, democracies cannot wage war without at least the tacit consent of their citizens. According to these scholars, it is the fear of an unreceptive public that oft en keeps the dogs of war at bay in democracies.

Public opinion scholars have taken up this theme and closely examined the nature of the public's preferences in times of crisis, conducting systematic studies of individual conflicts and series of wars in an attempt to determine what it is that leads citizens to rally to war or to reject an internationalist position. The result of this vast literature, however, is an inconclusive set of findings. Early authors such as Almond (1960) and Lippmann (1922) argued that Americans' preferences in foreign policy were largely incoherent—nothing more than shift ing and changing "moods." More recently, authors such as Feaver and Gelpi (2004), Gelpi, Feaver, and Reifler (2005–6), and Larson (1996) have taken the opposite view, arguing that opinions about foreign policy adjust directly to dynamic world events in sensible ways. Furthermore, with rare exceptions (Aldrich, Sullivan, and Borgida 1989; Baum and Groeling 2004), the study of foreign policy attitudes has mostly been divorced from the study of domestic politics. In fact, a largely separate literature has developed on public opinion concerning foreign policy (see Holsti 2004 for a comprehensive review). As a result, the study of public opinion and war lacks a coherent center.

An additional problem with the existing work on public opinion and foreign policy is that scholars have mainly focused on developments in the cold war and post–cold war periods in isolation, one war at a time. What we know about mass reaction to war, we have learned from failed international interventions—such as those in Korea and Vietnam—and relatively short-term military excursions—such the 1991 Gulf War, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. In the process, studies of public opinion during wartime have seemingly forgotten the rise of the polling industry in the 1930s and 1940s and have almost completely ignored World War II—a war that was in many ways a unique event in American history. World War II was the only war in the last two centuries in which Americans were directly attacked by another nation before becoming engaged in active combat. Furthermore, unlike recent wars, World War II was waged with and against some of the same European nations that had provided generations of immigrants to America.

Seminal studies of public opinion and war have largely set aside such concerns. Mueller's (1973) pathbreaking book, War, Presidents, and Public Opinion, for instance, devotes only three pages to World War II. More recently, Holsti's (2004) comprehensive treatment, Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy, devotes less than ten pages to the Second World War. Thus, paradoxically, the systematic study of the relationship between government and the public during wartime, at least the work conducted by political scientists in the last forty years, has overlooked the largest and most important international conflict in U.S. history—one with potentially important lessons for the study of public opinion and war more generally. In fact, as I discuss in greater detail in the chapters that follow, to the extent that scholars have drawn lessons from the Second World War, these lessons have been based on a faulty understanding of the public's reaction to that war, in part because the surveys from the 1930s and 1940s have been neglected.

This book is an attempt to fill this gap in our knowledge. In the pages that follow, I consider the United States' experience during six wars: World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the Afghanistan War, and the Iraq War. In advancing a general theory of public opinion and war, I therefore address a number of conflicts in American history but maintain a particular focus on World War II. Thus, this book brings our understanding of the dynamics of a conflict that was in many ways a unique effort into the general study of public opinion and war, thereby enriching both our knowledge of that war and our general understanding of how public opinion is forged in times of crisis. I make use of a rich trove of opinion data that were collected from 1935 to 1945, but—for reasons I make clear—have remained largely untouched for almost sixty years. I also draw on polls from familiar contemporary cases. The conflicts I consider range from relatively minor military interventions—such as the 1999 Kosovo conflict—to large-scale wars spanning many years—such as World War II and Vietnam. Although these wars differ in many respects, I find common patterns in the organization of public opinion during wartime that can change our understanding of public opinion in both the foreign and domestic arenas.

In this book I argue that public opinion during times of crisis—and during war in particular—is shaped by many of the same affections and enmities found on the domestic stage. Although these individual attachments may not fully account for changes in collective opinion, looking at wartime opinion through the lens of domestic politics yields some striking insights. Thus, to properly understand international relations and domestic politics, we need to unify the two areas of study.

The public may be directly influenced by some dramatic events, such as Pearl Harbor and 9/11, but—as in the domestic arena—public opinion is primarily structured by the ebb and flow of partisan and group-based political conflict. These factors shape support for policies of war just as they shape policies of peace. Moreover, we can better understand critical public choices during times of international conflict—notably, support for civil liberties and the election of political leaders—by looking to the same factors that shape opinion on the domestic stage. In these realms, the feelings of threat and fear generated by international conflict influence opinions and choices in the same ways that they influence public decisions surrounding domestic policies. In short, the study of domestic politics and international affairs—at least in the realm of public opinion—can and should proceed from a common foundation. Considering public opinion and foreign policy in isolation from the rest of the field of public opinion is not only unnecessary; it is a misguided enterprise. My book therefore builds on the work of other scholars—such as Hurwitz and Peffley (1987) and Zaller (1992)—who have applied the lessons gleaned through years of research on domestic public opinion to understand public opinion about matters lying beyond the water's edge. By revisiting faulty lessons from World War II and drawing on seemingly disparate survey evidence from more than sixty years of American involvement in international affairs, I draw broader conclusions about the roots of public attitudes toward foreign policy. In doing so, I provide a coherent understanding of public opinion during times of crisis that brings together several divergent lines of research in the fields of international relations and American politics.

My findings also have important implications for the study of domestic politics. Just as our study of domestic opinion can inform our study of public opinion and foreign policy, the study of public opinion and war can shed new light on the nature of public opinion more generally. In domestic politics, the positions of prominent political elites have—with rare exception—changed only gradually if at all. The two parties have long taken firm positions on many political controversies. Whereas the intensity and salience of these positions may wax and wane over electoral cycles, the relative locations of the two parties are relatively stable. It is difficult in these circumstances to disentangle the relative importance of mass preferences and elite positions. In the realm of war, however, elite positions are sometimes more malleable, especially given the wide latitude politicians oft en have in the foreign realm. In the last decade alone, both Democratic and Republican presidents have rallied the nation to military action at different times using very similar justifications. Moreover, once foreign commitments have been launched, it is difficult for leaders to extract the country from involvement abroad. Vietnam, for instance, may have been Johnson's folly, but after 1968 it became "Nixon's war." Given the sometimes abrupt changes in elite positioning and rhetoric on critical foreign policy issues by particular party leaders, the study of public opinion and war can illuminate the dynamics of public opinion more generally in a way that the study of domestic politics cannot easily do. Times of war may be distinctive in several respects, but they can inform our general understanding of the formation and expression of public opinion in important ways.


In part 1 of this book, I set the stage for the analysis that follows by providing a historical overview of the different military interventions and conflicts. In chapter 2, I discuss the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the war in Afghanistan, and the Iraq War. In chapter 3, I take up World War II. In both chapters, I make the case that we can learn much by comparing and contrasting the trends and relationships in the patterns of public opinion across the different wars. I pay special attention here to the Second World War, a conflict that looms large in American history, but also one that has mostly been passed over by scholars of public opinion. Generations of researchers have ignored the vast stores of information concerning the public's preferences during this crucial moment in American political life, in large part because these data are difficult to work with and were collected using procedures that—from a modern perspective—seem arcane. I use methods that account for the shortcomings of these early survey efforts, however, and dispel several myths that have arisen concerning the nature of public support for World War II; in doing so, I bring the Second World War into the systematic study of public opinion and war.

The two parts of the book that follow take up topics central to the formation and expression of public opinion during times of war. I first examine the roots of public support for war in chapters 4–6. This section makes a simple point: domestic politics has a great impact on how people think about war. There is a growing consensus among political scientists, and even some policymakers, that citizens on the whole hold views of foreign policy generally, and war specifically, that move in response to changes in salient world events that reflect on American interests (Holsti 1992, 2004; Jentleson 1992; Nincic 1988, 1992; Page and Shapiro 1992; Feaver and Gelpi 2004; Gelpi, Feaver, and Reifler 2005–6). For instance, a prominent line of argument in this vein is what Burk (1999) calls the "casualties hypothesis," the view that the American people will shy away from international involvement in the face of war deaths (Mueller 1973). Although recognizing the important contributions of these authors, I question the assumption of scholars in this tradition. In chapter 4, I review the literature on the influence of events on public opinion concerning war. Existing accounts of the roots of public support for military action fail to specify the mechanism by which members of the public process information concerning the events of war. Although events may ultimately help shape public opinion, the mechanism by which these events exert influence on opinion is complex. Foreign policy events seldom directly affect opinion in and of themselves. Facts are oft en ambiguous and little known by citizens. Instead, factors that shape opinions on other policies—attachments and enmities forged on the domestic political scene—also shape public opinion on war.


Excerpted from IN TIME OF WAR by ADAM J. BERINSKY Copyright © 2009 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


List of Figures....................ix
List of Tables....................xii
1 Introduction: America at War....................1
2 Public Opinion and War: A Historical Perspective....................13
3 The Myths and Meaning of Public Opinion and World War II....................33
4 The Calculation of Costs: An Innocent Public....................61
5 Partisan Structure of War Support: Events, Elites, and the Public....................85
6 Ethnic Groups: Attachments, Enmities, and Support for War....................127
7 Civil Liberties and War....................155
8 Elections during Wartime....................178
9 Conclusions....................207
APPENDIX A: Description of Data and Weighting....................222
APPENDIX B: Iraq War Casualty Survey Analysis....................229
APPENDIX C: Congressional Record Content Analysis....................234
APPENDIX D: Statistical Significance of Ethnic Variables....................246
APPENDIX E: Relationship between Support for War and Support for Restricting Civil Liberties....................251
APPENDIX F: NES Analysis of Retrospective War Support....................256
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